So You Want to Start…Cooking Healthy

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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So You Want to Start…Cooking Healthy

Cooking healthy. For many of us, saying these two words together is a culinary kiss of death. You see, somewhere between the fat-free, reduced salt and sugar-free fads, “healthy” became synonymous with bland and unexciting.

Back when I decided to start “cooking healthy” shortly after graduating from college, I, like many others, made every mistake in the book. I skimped on the fat and sprinkled salt only sparingly. For years I chewed…and chewed…and chewed dreadfully dry chicken breast and tried to get excited about steamed, butterless broccoli.

That never happened–but with the help of cookbooks, beautiful food blogs, and a whole lot of hours in the kitchen, I gradually discovered that healthy cooking could actually be really tasty–and it didn’t mean skipping the butter on my broccoli. I grew to love cooking so much I started my own food blog, went back to graduate school to become a Registered Dietitian made myself a career out of enjoying healthy food!

If you too want to start cooking healthy, here are some tricks I learned along the way to take the headache out of, and put the taste back into, cooking healthy:

1. Find some reliable recipe resources. Don’t do what I did and get stuck in a bland broccoli rut for lack of a reliable recipe collection. Ask friends for cookbook or recipe recommendations and poke around online for some healthy food blogs to follow. The internet is laden with millions, maybe even billions of delicious, healthy recipes. When you find one that catches your eye, just bookmark, Pin or print it for later. CookingLight is a personal favorite for quick, easy, and reliably delicious recipes since they taste-test every single one in their amazing test kitchen.

2. Take it one dish at a time. Learning how to cook takes a bit of practice, so start simple and take it slow. Begin by selecting one new recipe, preferably one that’s done in 30 minutes or less. If you like it enough, perfect it next time by adjusting the seasoning to your tastebuds. Do this a few times a month and before you know it you’ll have a rotation of familiar favorites to choose from. You can even add your top recipes to the MyFitnessPal food database for quick and easy logging!

3. Don’t be afraid to try something new. When selecting healthy recipes, sticking to those with ingredients you know and enjoy is always a safe bet, especially if time is tight. But don’t forget to occasionally give a new, totally delicious looking recipe a try, or pick up an unfamiliar grain, fruit or vegetable the next time you spot one at the grocery store. A few years ago my husband introduced me to brussels sprouts in a way I had never had them before: roasted with just a bit of olive oil, sea salt and a dash of pepper. They’ve since become one of my all-time favorite veggies! Which leads me to #4…

4. Roast your vegetables. If you’re like me and don’t love raw veggies or salads (there, I said it…) roasting is an easy way to bring out great flavor. They almost always come out of the oven more sweet and irresistibly delicious. And because there’s no boiling involved, they tend to retain a good amount of their water-soluble vitamins and minerals. Coat them with a bit of olive oil to retain moisture and you’ll up the absorption of those healthy fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K too.

5. Learn some simple ingredient substitutions. Oftentimes adapting a decadent dish into something a little more nutritious can be as simple as swapping out one or two ingredients. For example, dollop some 2% Greek yogurt on top of your spuds in place of sour cream for a protein-packed potato. I’ve found Pinterest to be a great resource for healthy ingredient substitution ideas.

6. Write a grocery list. With takeout just a phone call away, not having the right ingredients on hand could be bad news if you’re trying to cook healthier. Grocery list writing is an underrated skill that can  not only save time but spare you the headache of having to beg your spouse to run back to the grocery store for you. I speak from experience. Once you have a recipe selected, jot down your list of items to buy as you poke through the kitchen cabinets and take inventory of what’s in the refrigerator. If you know your market well enough, organize foods by groups as they’re arranged in the grocery store (i.e. produce, meats, cheeses etc…) to save yourself even more time.

7. Make small Investments in cooking equipment. I never realized the value of an inexpensive slow cooker until I owned one. Now that I do though, I can’t imagine life without it. Certain kitchen gadgets really can simplify cooking, make your food taste better and reduce the amount of time and effort you spend in the kitchen. On my long list of must-haves:

8. Stock your pantry with some healthy essentials. When they’re on sale, stock up on canned beans and tomatoes, herbs and spices, soup stocks, nuts and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and oats. Having a stash of healthy pantry staples will save time and money and allow you to pull together flavorful dishes when you have food in the fridge that needs to be eaten up.

9.  Put your trust in your tastebuds, not the recipe. Very rarely do I find a recipe that doesn’t need some sort of tweaking, even if it’s just a tad more salt or a little less spice. Whatever you do, don’t make a recipe and wait until it’s on the table to taste it. Recipes are guides, at best, and the only really way to end up with a truly satisfying dish is to taste along the way.

10. Make cooking a friend and family affair. I admit, with all of the peeling, slicing and dicing involved–with those veggie-heavy dishes in particular–sometimes cooking can feel like a chore. Involving the kids, your spouse, or inviting friends over to make dinner on the weekend can quickly make cooking healthy a fun and delicious occasion. Who knows, you may even acquire some buddies to swap recipes with in the process!

11. Resolve to learn a new culinary skill in 2014. Sign up for a cooking or knife-skills class this year. Becoming a better, faster and safer cook will only be more incentive to skip the takeout and make more healthful meals at home. As an added bonus, you can show off your new skills in the kitchen when your friends come over for dinner.

12. Consider a meal plan. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, signing up for a weekly meal planning service might help get you started. Meal plan recipes are generally geared towards newbie cooks, can typically be tailored to meet your individual dietary needs and many services provide some added perks like preparation tips and tricks or printable grocery lists. Check out our holiday gift guide for a few healthy meal planning services to consider.

I hope these tips help you be a little bolder in the kitchen when it comes to cooking healthfully.  Feel free to share any healthy cooking tips and tricks you’ve learned in the comments below!

About the Author

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
Elle Penner, MPH, RD

Elle is a nutrition and wellness writer, recipe developer, blogger and nutrition consultant whose favorite things include her camera, carbs and quality time with her toddler. For more from this busy mama, check out Elle’s lifestyle blog or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.


16 responses to “So You Want to Start…Cooking Healthy”

  1. Avatar Matshan says:

    Why do you allow such dreadfully misleading, not to mention dangerous adverts to be associated with your page?

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    Elle. Thanks some great tips. I’m sharing with a group of young mothers who are learning to take better care of themselves while going through addiction recovery!
    Do you have any tips for reducing sugar intake without sacrificing taste and while on an extremely limited budget?

  3. Avatar Jerry S says:

    This may seem trivial, but the genesis of my healthy cooking experience started with finding a really good knife buried in a drawer. As you noted, healthy eating nearly always involves fresh food which needs to be cut, diced, sliced, etc. Having the right tool, IE. a large knife, makes a difference. It took a while to master how to use it, but it makes healthy meal prep much easier.
    Check the back of your drawer. There is probably a suitable knife in there.

    • Avatar Jules says:

      Some grocery stores sell veggies and fruit that are already cut up! I almost gave up on one of my favorites, butternut squash, as a substitute to potatoes before I knew you can buy them already cubed. (Anyone who has tried to cut squash knows what I am talking about.) It gets expensive if you buy everything pre-cut but the harder ones like that are worth it to me – no trip to the emergency room from a dull knife.

      • Avatar Sheila says:

        I cook my butternut squash in the oven, whole. Keeps all the nutrients in it and is much easier to cut, mash or whatever you want to do with it. Once done, just slice it in half and remove all the seeds and you’re good to go. I do all my squash this way.

  4. Avatar kaaka says:

    eat me!

  5. Avatar omgstfualready says:

    anyone know the find and replace function? yet another article that has the wrong new year. recycling is not just for paper and plastic anymore.

  6. Avatar Amanda says:

    My family is trying really hard this new year to eat healthier and work out more frequently. We are planning on going to Mexico next January, so we all want to have hot bodies and feel confident in our bikinis. I am in college and I eat pretty healthy when I cook for myself at school. But when I am home, my family tends to eat less healthy. My mom and sister are not fans of vegetables, where I try to eat at least one huge serving of them a day. I enjoyed reading this blog post, and I hope that I can try out some of these suggestions at home! I think that creating a meal plan is an excellent idea and I plan on trying it out. Thank you!

  7. Avatar Matt Hoyle says:

    Super helpful, Elle. Thank you.

  8. Avatar laura patterson says:

    I would you to have more fruit and vegetables.

  9. Avatar Sparkles says:

    Cooking healthy is so much fun if you know which spices to use.

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